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Security Divides Leading Australian Parties Ahead of Election - 2004-10-04


The leading candidates in Australia's national elections have very different positions on the country's role in the war on terror. Prime Minister John Howard sent the third biggest combat force in the invasion of Iraq, while Mark Latham, the head of the opposition Labor Party, says the deployment has made Australia less safe. Still the issue is only one that voters are considering.

The bombing of the Australian Embassy in Jakarta last month made national security a key issue in the country's election campaign. While no Australians were among the dead, the attack reminded voters that their country has been targeted by terrorists.

The major parties are in a close race in the October 9 election. While the economy, health care and education are the top domestic issues, national security and the war on terror are significant concerns.

Mark Latham, head of the opposition Labor Party, says that as prime minister he would withdraw most of Australia's troops from Iraq by the end of the year.

Mr. Latham says a Labor government would try to improve security closer to home in Southeast Asia, where Islamic militants have carried out a number of bombings aimed at Westerners. "We don't believe our permanent interests lie on the other side of the world, they lie on our side of the world - and that's one of the reasons why we didn't support the Iraq conflict in the first place," he says.

Prime Minister John Howard, head of the conservative Liberal Party, has repeatedly said that Australia will not "cut and run" from Iraq. Many voters appear to agree - with some polls indicating they think the troops should stay until Iraq is stabilized.

Closer to home, Mr. Howard says his government is most capable of defending Australia from terror. "Everything about the future depends on us maintaining a strong stand against terrorism and giving this country strong defenses. Unless we have a strong economy and we're strong on national security nothing else can be achieved," he says.

The prime minister also says his government has worked hard to improve security ties and cooperation with Australia's neighbors in Southeast Asia.

When Mr. Howard committed troops to Iraq, he was cementing the country's most important relationship. He says Australia's security depends on close ties to the United States.

But Labor politicians say the deployment in Iraq has made Australia more of a target for extremists.

Many political experts, however, say the security issue is only one of many voters are looking at.

Ian McAllister is a political analyst at Australian National University in Canberra. "When we asked people in our survey to rank the issues, terrorism ranks sixth, so it comes after all these economic and social issues like health and education and the environment," he says.

The country has enjoyed strong economic growth in recent years, and both major parties are trying to convince the public that they are best suited to make sure it continues.

Both parties' campaign policies include plans to boost jobs, help farmers and address concerns about public health care.

While the war in Iraq may not be the top issue in the election, Mr. McAllister says it may have an influence in how voters perceive candidates. "The war in Iraq has had a indirect effect on the election in the sense that the issue of trust has become important rather like the issue of trust and leadership in the United States and Britain," he says.

In both the United States and Britain, there have been questions about whether the governments misled the public in trying to justify the invasion of Iraq.

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